The streets outside the San Francisco hotel where Chinese leader Xi Jinping addressed a crowd of American business executives Wednesday night were chaotic, echoing with police sirens and protesters’ chants. A woman had tied herself to a pole 25 feet high in front of the hotel, shouting “Free Tibet!” while a cold rain fell.
But inside the Hyatt Regency ballroom, the atmosphere was warm and friendly. More than 300 executives and officials listened intently as Xi – the leader of a country often considered America’s biggest rival – spoke for more than half an hour about a lasting friendship between China and the United States that could not be diminished by the recent turmoil. .
Mr. Xi talked about pandas. He talked about ping-pong. He talked about Americans and Chinese working together during World War II to fight the Japanese. He addressed the tensions that have rocked U.S.-China relations over the past year only briefly and indirectly, likening the relationship to a giant ship trying to navigate through storms.
“The number one question for us is: are we adversaries or partners?” Mr. Xi asked. Viewing the other side as a competitor, he asserted, would only lead to misinformed policies and undesirable results. “China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.”
Among those who paid thousands of dollars to attend the dinner and hear Xi’s message were Apple CEO Tim Cook, BlackRock’s Larry Fink and Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. They mingled with executives from Boeing, Pfizer, Nike and FedEx. Elon Musk appeared during the cocktail hour to greet Xi, but left before dinner began.
Xi’s tone was welcomed by many in attendance, who believe that greater engagement between the United States and China will improve the lives of people in both countries, reduce misunderstandings and potentially even deter war.
“I think it’s important for Americans and Chinese to meet again face to face,” said John L. Holden, China managing director at consulting firm McLarty Associates, as he stood in line outside the hotel. “This is not a magic bullet, but it is something that can provide possibilities that would not otherwise exist.”
Xi’s positive tone and the enthusiasm of some of those attending the event stood in stark contrast to much of the recent conversation in the United States about China, which has focused on potential economic and security threats.
Republican lawmakers have criticized President Biden for his “zombie engagement” with China. Recent surveys have shown that Americans are more concerned about the rise of China than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Biden held a successful meeting with Xi earlier in the day, which resulted in agreements to combat drug trafficking and increase communication between the countries’ militaries. But when asked if he still thought Xi was a dictator, Biden responded: “Well, look, he is.”
China has for decades been an attractive market for American companies because of its size and growth, but the country’s slowing economy and its increasingly authoritarian bent have been cooling executives’ enthusiasm for China.
Foreign companies say the Chinese government has slowly been ousting them in favor of local competitors. While some think Chinese leaders have been shaken by a recent drop in foreign investment in China and are motivated to repair ties, executives are still concerned about China’s recent crackdown on foreign businesses and strict regulations. , including about how companies use Chinese data.
For companies manufacturing in China, supply chain disruptions during the pandemic also sent a strong message that companies should not rely on a single country for their products and kicked off a trend toward “de-risking.” . Still, some American companies continue to make a lot of money in China.
“I don’t think anyone thinks that one dinner, one visit or one conference is going to reverse all the hostility that has built up between the United States and China,” Michael Hart, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in China, said in an interview on Tuesday. But he added that if Xi were to take a friendlier stance toward the United States, “hopefully that would mean a slightly friendlier operating environment toward American companies in China.”
In the ballroom, 34 tables were placed with roses and orchids. They were numbered 1 to 39, omitting any number with a four, which in Chinese sounds similar to death, as well as the unfortunate number 13. Guests chose between a coffee-crusted Black Angus steak and a vegetable curry with jasmine rice and toasted pistachios.
Gina Raimondo, the US Commerce Secretary who spoke at the dinner, thanked Xi for a productive meeting earlier in the day, where Chinese officials had met with Biden and his deputies.
“We all know we have differences,” Raimondo said over dinner. “I’m not going to pretend otherwise. That said, President Biden has been very clear that while we compete with China and other countries, we do not seek conflict or confrontation.”
“We want solid trade with China,” Raimondo said. He said many of the people present were still very interested in doing business in China. “I know this because many of you come to see me and tell me that,” he said with a laugh.
Xi, who has overseen China’s military modernization and increasingly robust projection of power abroad, emphasized China’s commitment to a rules-based international system, its efforts to eradicate poverty and its peaceful nature. Xi also touted his personal connections to the United States, including time he spent in Iowa in the 1980s and an old photograph he said he kept of himself in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“China has no intention of challenging the United States or unseating it,” he said.
Stephen A. Orlins, chairman of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, one of the groups sponsoring the event, said he was there when the committee hosted previous Chinese leaders in the United States: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. . – and that everyone had projected a friendly demeanor. He recalled that Deng famously donned a cowboy hat during a visit to the United States in 1979.
“When they stand in front of an American, they tend to be more constructive and pro-American. It’s just part of what happens,” Orlins said. “They’re not going to come to an event like this and put their thumb in our eye as sponsors and as an audience.”
Orlins’ group and the event’s other organizer, the United States-China Business Council, held a logistical olympiad to organize the dinner. For security reasons, organizers could not reveal the location until the day before, and guests received an invitation to an event with an unnamed “senior Chinese leader.”
Orlins said his group knew Xi had attended every meeting of the international group known as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and concluded he would do the same when the meeting was held in San Francisco this week. Therefore, nine months ago they extended an invitation to receive Mr. Xi.
Three or four weeks ago, Orlin said he was told that Xi’s presence was still uncertain, but that he should begin preparations.
The Chinese protocol office looked at each attendee; They were extremely sensitive about security, especially since someone had crashed a sedan into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco just weeks before. The White House insisted that the dinner be held after Biden’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday, so as not to overshadow that event.
The groups had to hire extensive security and staff, and even transport translation equipment by plane, as the Asia-Pacific conference had already called for local supplies. Although many more people wanted to attend the event than there was capacity, Orlin said the $40,000 the groups charged for some tables would only partially recoup the costs of the event.
Orlins said the Chinese had prepared three versions of a speech Xi might give that night. After Wednesday’s events with Biden, Xi had chosen the friendlier one.